Communication is essential when extreme weather conditions loom

Canada’s Alert Ready system can help save lives in an emergency.

Climate change is creating increasingly powerful weather systems that can kill people and destroy infrastructure.

In this regard, 2021 has been a wake-up call for British Columbians.

The province suffered record heat in June and warmer than average weather thereafter, causing nearly 600 deaths between June 18 and August 12, according to the BC Coroners Service.

At least five other people died in a landslide on Highway 99 north of Pemberton on November 15, after an atmospheric river swept through the province with record amounts of rain.

The province appeared to some to be caught off guard by the severity of impending weather systems, as it did not issue emergency warning messages through the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System (NAAD ) from Canada, known as Alert Ready, and operated by the owner of Weather Network Pelmorex as a condition of its broadcasting license.

Pelmorex employs dozens of people to operate and maintain the system around the clock and to provide communications, Pelmorex director of public alerts Martin Bélanger told BIV.

Its free-to-all-government system can send alerts to smartphones in targeted geographic areas that can be as small as a few blocks, depending on how close cell towers are, he said.

Alerts can also take the form of a scrolling strip of text displayed on television screens and an automated message that creeps into radio programming, Bélanger said.

Instead of using Alert Ready, the B.C. government slipped weather warnings into press releases, like the one that was primarily intended to provide an update on the spread of COVID-19.

Critics of the government’s response to severe weather events noted that British Columbia was the only province that, until an incident with an active shooter in Vanderhoof in November, had never issued a Ready Alert message.

In contrast, Ontario issued 71 Alert Ready messages in the first 11 months of 2021.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said part of this was because BC’s process is working with municipalities.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun confirmed to media that before severe flooding hit the Sumas Prairie area in his town, he didn’t want an Alert Ready message sent because “we didn’t want not alarm the whole town ”.

Instead, Abbotsford officials have been going door to door in affected areas, he said.

Academics who study emergency preparedness say alerts shouldn’t cause undue fear.

“If your alert message is likely to cause panic, you have already failed because you were not able to communicate this message appropriately,” said Ryan Reynolds, postdoctoral researcher at the University of the British Columbia, specializing in emergency preparedness. .

Frequent alerts, he said, accustom the public to receiving this form of communication. In addition, the messages contained in these alerts can be specific enough to make it clear to those who are not affected that they are not in danger.

The Canadian Alert Ready system, however, is not intended to inform people about impending weather systems, but rather about specific and imminent life-threatening situations – some of which can be caused by weather conditions, he said. -he declares.

“Weather emergencies are a little different from something like seasonal flooding you can predict,” Reynolds said.

The weather approach can appear threatening on the radar, only to fade in the hours that follow, he added.

When there is a clear danger of severe weather, now is the time to alert the public, Reynolds said.

There are also many ways to communicate with the public.

Farnworth downplayed the value of issuing the alerts and said communication through press conferences and press releases to the media had taken place.

“If you are on the Coquihalla Freeway at 120 kilometers per hour, or where there is no cell coverage, an Alert Ready system will not help,” Farnworth said at a press conference. in mid-November.

Reynolds agreed that a better system for alerting drivers would be larger signs that rise above freeways and can display scrolling or alternating messages, which can be changed from a distance and can warn of potential landslides.

“These signs are a great idea, and I wish we had more of them across the province,” he said.

“It gets the message straight to the drivers, but they’re not cheap and they’re not necessarily easy to maintain. There has to be a balance. It’s like an onion – all of these ways of communicating are layers. •

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